When looking for something to do over the festive season, the idea of having a Hobart Christmas proved attractive. My only previous visit to Tasmania was over 20 years ago and was a wet and cold week in the middle of winter. I was expecting better things this time round – and apart from a rainy Boxing Day – I was not disappointed. Flying in, I could see the Derwent river valley in all its glory with the majestic Mt Wellington in the background. Just about the only concern was the fact the plane seemed to be landing well away from Hobart. On a small island it was a surprise to find the airport so far from the city though for just $18 a friendly bus driver took me almost to the front door of my apartment in the hills of West Hobart. Having dropped my bags off and got some vital supplies for the week it was straight into town and down to the docks. Constitution Dock would be the landing place of the Sydney to Hobart race and I hoped to see some of the earliest arrivals before I left a week later (Unfortunately the first to arrive came just hours after I left Tasmania). It’s a bustling area full of yachts, fishing boats and pleasure crafts, all glistening in the sunshine. I settled in for a beer and later some fresh fish and chips straight out of one of the crafts in the dock (the serving counter is low in the water and I wonder whether anyone has fallen in while bending over to make the transaction).
Next to the Docks is imposing Hunter St. Unlike Brisbane which has ruthlessly razed its past, Hobart is full of streets that still speak to older times. At the turn of the 20th century, Hunter St would have been bristling with factories, pubs, chandlers, offices and warehouses. There was also the jam factory, home of Henry Jones and Co IXL makers of fine jams and conserves, established in 1891. The IXL brand – “I excel in everything I do” was Henry Jones’s personal motto.
Salamanca Place is at the other end of Sullivans Cove from Constitution Dock, nestled in behind Battery Point. But it too was the home of wharfside warehouses and it too has escaped the ravages of time. It was named after the Duke of Wellington’s victory in the 1812 Iberian campaign in the Battle of Salamanca. Salamanca boomed during the whaling days of the early 1800s and many laneways were built to cope with the milling crowds. Every Saturday the Place comes alive with a market. The Saturday I was there was Boxing Day and non-stop rain kept me away. Tasmania has a sea-faring culture a lot older than 200 years. At the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery near the docks, the restored ningina tunapri Tasmanian Aboriginal gallery is a rich, enlightening and inspiring experience. Ningina tunapri means “to give knowledge and understanding”. The exhibition explores the journey of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and is a celebration of all Tasmanian Aboriginal generations. The centrepiece is a reconstructed canoe which would have been used to cross the D’Entrecasteaux Passage for generations. The highlight of the second day was a 12.5km walk to the suburb of Berriedale, home of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). MONA didn’t exist when I was last in Hobart so I was excited about the visit, though determined to take my time about it. You can get to MONA by a superfast ferry from the centre of town taking just half an hour up the Derwent (indeed this was the pleasurable way I got back) but with plenty of time on a beautiful Christmas Eve I was in the mood for a two hour walk. The walk has great views of the Derwent estuary for for first half (with its two majestic bridges) before following the old railway line a little inland through the suburbs of Moonah and Glenorchy. Finally the impressive property which holds MONA comes into view. MONA is the brainchild of wealthy gambler David Walsh. MONA was opened in the middle of winery in 2011. Walsh has said it’s not altruistic or his attempt at immortality but a “theatre of curious enchantments”. Certainly there is plenty for the eyes to feast on in a deceptively large building over several floors.. The highlight of my visit to MONA was the art exhibition of Gilbert and George. I didn’t know a great deal about these distinctively well dressed British artists and I had assumed they were stuffy upper-class toffs. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They certainly enjoy putting themselves in their work (either immaculate dressed or completely starkers) but their themes are political, sexual and confronting. I loved their canvasses based on media headlines and their bright colours were also enchanting.
Speaking of enchanting that’s a great description for kunanyi Mt Wellington, standing 1627m high 15km west of the city. Having walked 12.5km on Christmas Eve, I was in the mood for an even bigger walk on Christmas Day, though I didn’t take into account Hobart’s incredible weather. It was 30 degrees – possibly the hottest Christmas day ever. I was well stocked with water as I started along the Hobart Rivulet path but my hopes of getting to the summit in three hours proved hopelessly optimistic. I’d heard someone did walk to the summit that day – but took five and a half hours. I turned back after two hard hours and I was nowhere near the summit climb. But the day provided one outstanding sight. Struggling in the 30 degree heat, I was still awestruck by the beauty of the Cascades Brewery with the mountain in the background. The Cascades estate was originally a saw mill beginning operation in 1825 and the brewery started six years later taking advantage of the clean water of the Hobart Rivulet. It remains the oldest continuing operating brewery in Australia with tours – though not surprisingly was closed on Christmas Day when only mad dogs and Irishmen were out in the noon day sun. I tried to book myself onto a Bruny Island tour before Christmas but they were all booked out. I knew the Boxing Day weather forecast was dismal so I booked myself in for Sunday, December 27. First stop is Kettering, 30km south of Hobart, where the ferry leaves for Bruny. Traffic was heavy for the ferry and we had a chance to hop off the bus and explore this pretty port.
After the ferry ride (which takes only 15 minutes across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel) there is a 40 minute drive along narrow and winding roads to Bruny’s settlement: Adventure Bay. A small beach is mostly deserted but there is a cafe for morning tea (and lunch later) nestled next to Captain Bligh Creek. Bligh and Cook had both anchored here on their voyages to Tasmania. Then it’s off for a three hour roller-coaster ride down Bruny Island’s eastern seaboard. I was with Pennicott’s yellow boat tours. The boats hold 45-50 people and I was told that if you want a smooth ride you go to the back of the boat. I sat right at the front and experienced the belly flop of every breaker. But it was fabulous with magnificent sea stacks, rock formations and blow holes wherever you looked. Finally at the bottom of Bruny Island was what we all came to see Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus, the Australian fur seal. The highlight of the day (though the albatrosses gliding in the breeze were special too). There were hundreds of seals sunning on the rocks. The Australian fur seal can be seen around the islands of Bass Strait, parts of Tasmania and southern Victoria and occasionally drift up to the islands of NSW and South Australia. There is a huge colony of a thousand seals who live in the rocky outcrops and craggy islands off the southern end of Bruny. The seals are agile swimmers who can dive up to 200m to catch bony fish, squid and octopus. Despite a cumbersome appearance they showed they could be mobile out of water on on rocky terrain using all four limbs to get around (that, their external ears and two layers of fur differentiate them from true seals). Fully protected now, their numbers are rising after being hunted to near extinction for their coat in the 19th century. Monday was my last full day in Hobart and with the help of friends with a car I finally got to the top of Mt Wellington. The view was amazing in every direction. I saw most of where I went the day before to Bruny and out east towards the Tasman Peninsula. I couldn’t see the Sydney to Hobart fleet who were just a bit too slow for me and I missed them by one day. It can get cool up at the top. On rainy Boxing Day when it was 13 in the city it was minus six up on kunanyi. A bit warmer today. Down at the bottom of the mountain it was time to indulge in some taste of Tasmania. On my last day it was a good excuse to relax with a friend and enjoy the Taste of Tasmania festival on the dockside. On now for over 20 years to coincide with the Sydney to Hobart, the Taste of Tasmania closes off the roads and brings Hobart’s gorgeous waterfront alive with great smells, sights, sounds and of course, tastes in abundance. Entry was free and once inside you spoiled for choice of great Tasmanian food and drink. There was seafood, great cheeses, berries, boutique beers and ciders but I plumped for a cool fruity Tasmanian chardonnay which slid wonderfully down the throat. It was a great island at its best. Tasmania, I’ll be back. One final photo and proof that although the word is recent, the concept of a selfie is nothing new. Louis Bernacchi was the first Australian to spend a winter in Antarctica. Bernacchi was born in Belgium but grew up in Hobart. At the turn of the 20th century he joined the London Southern Cross expedition to the Antartic and wrote a book about it called “To the South Polar Regions”. Family responsibilities later saved his life when they forced him to turn down a spot on Scott’s ill-fated expedition. But he kept a lifelong interest in polar matters. The dockside monument commemorates a photo he took of himself and his dog Joe in the Antarctic. Just one of the many reasons to spend time by the water in lovely Hobart.